Dave Penman: Bold ideas and recipes for chaos from the Commission for Smart Government

The new review is a serious piece of work, and comes just weeks after the government’s own declaration on reform. But do ministers have a clear strategy for the reform they want?
Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

15 Jul 2021

Talking about government reform at a social occasion would once have been “a guarantee that people would try to distance themselves from you”, Michael Gove said at the launch of the Commission for Smart Government’s ‘Four Steps to Smarter Government’. Not now apparently. Like mentioning you are an epidemiologist, you’re guaranteed to be the focus of attention.

I don’t know the type of social occasions the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster attends but they sound very different from mine. Try talking about government reform down the George and Dragon in East Tilbury and you would have always got an engaging dialogue about the challenges of delivering cross-cutting public service delivery in a fragmented and delegated civil service.

The commission has apparently evolved from GovernUp, which came to life in 2014 with a series of papers looking at government reform and which itself is an offshoot of the Project for Modern Democracy. I’m sure thinktanks used to be much simpler. The former policing minister, Nick, now Lord Herbert is still involved and it has retained its cross-party – and no party – schtick, including private and public sector commissioners.

There are a series of papers supporting the report and, it has to be said, a fairly decent analysis of some of the issues that need to be fixed. Identifying problems and finding solutions are two different things though, and my expectations are not high, as too often these kinds of reports seem more concerned with pleasing an internal stakeholder audience rather than delivering meaningful reform. It has to be said, nevertheless, that there are some not terrible ideas in this report, and that’s not just because they quote me at one point.

Recommendations that No.10 should be beefed up with its own department, to give greater strategic oversight, is not new but is quite comprehensively explored and argued. A new Treasury Board within it, seeking to dilute the power of the Treasury and chancellor is more novel, though was apparently previously vetoed by Gordon Brown in the Labour years, if Jonathan Powell’s letter to the Times is to be believed.

The report makes a lot of the difficulty for government in being strategic and effecting change across a number of departments. Many would agree, though I sense there is more than just a little concern that, whilst this has always been the case, this is partly driven by a lack of broader strategy within the current government, including a sense that individual ministers are not filling the void. The report also generated headlines with its suggestion that ministers should be brought in from outside Parliament, a ‘cabinet of all the talents’ no less – who said it was original?

The commissioners were at pains to emphasise that this is not simply about civil service reform – upskilling ministers and looking at the support they have in departments was also key. Their solution, though, was an advisory council based on the premise of extended ministerial offices, staffed with quasi-civil servants personally picked by ministers. That, together with the renaming of permanent secretaries as chief executives, seeks to drive a wedge between the policy advice role of the civil service and the delivery role. Once again, we’re seeing the suggestion, dressed up in different titles and structures, that if only ministers surrounded themselves with clever “experts” who all agree with them, then everything would be hunky dory.

Despite the assurances provided, this would of course dilute the role of a permanent civil service able to give the best impartial, evidence-based advice. That advice would now be filtered through a new hand-picked team, housed with the minister separately from the department, in a new ministerial hub. But it would also result in the chaos of the entire leadership cadre of departments changing if, just to pluck an example out of the air, a minister might have to resign after inadvertently appearing on candid camera.

There was a decent deep dive into the people issues across the service, with blunt criticism of the SCS performance management system as bureaucratic and failing to deliver meaningful change – cue a ripple of applause across Whitehall. The report recognised that pay levels were too low compared to both the wider public and private sectors. There were fewer solutions here, except a general “fewer civil servants but higher paid” platitude. Like most of these reports, it seems to have a blind spot below the SCS, with little recognition of the chaos and inefficiency of delegated pay.

This is only a snapshot of the proposals but, overall, you get the sense that this is actually a very serious piece of work. No one is likely to agree with all of it and there are some issues which I would vehemently oppose, but it does have a much more strategic and comprehensive feel to it than the Declaration of Arbroath, or whatever the chancellor of the said Lancastrian duchy launched a few weeks ago. There is much to commend in the declaration, including the point made by Gove in his that it was a collaborative effort between ministers and officials. Though he went off piste at this point, saying it put an end to the silly notion of any “Whitehall war”, and couldn’t stop himself from trying to pretend that Dominic Cummings had never used the “Hard Rain” phrase.

For all the bonhomie at the launch, there was a sense that the commission see the post pandemic world as an opportunity that should not be given up to be bold, a word they kept repeating. They even got their retaliation in first, listing the main proposals from the declaration and matching these with their – mainly more comprehensive – proposals.

This government has showed time and again that, politically, it can be bold. Whether it has a clear strategy for the reform it wants remains to be seen.

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union, and tweets @FDAGenSec

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